Halifax County tobacco growers see fertilizer leaching thanks to copious rain

CM-MR-3-Halifax county 3by Karl H. Kazaks
SOUTHWEST HALIFAX COUNTY, VA — Roland Coleman is 67 years old and has been growing tobacco since he was a young boy.
Today he and his brother grow 15 acres of leaf near Alton.
This year, Coleman said, “It’s been kind of rough on us. We had a time.”
The rain came down all spring and summer. “When we were getting the land ready, it was wet,” Coleman said. “When we bedded — and we bedded in a hurry — it was wet. When we planted, it was half wet. When we started pulling, it was wet.”
The precipitation has had an impact on the Coleman’s crop. “We put fertilizer down but it washed off,” he said. He went back and added nitrogen but nonetheless their tobacco plants turned a “right smart yellow.”
Halifax County extension agent Chris Brown said the problem of leaching fertilizer has been widespread through the county. “The rain just washed all that nitrogen away,” he said. With repeat applications, some farmers, he estimated, may have put down twice as much fertilizer as normal.
Steven Hudson is one of those farmers who has used twice the usual amount of fertilizer, putting out in some places 150 or more units of nitrogen. But “the tobacco still looks yellow,” in places, he said.
Hudson, who farms with his brother John (their brother Thomas has his own farm in the area) grows 150 acres of tobacco. They’ve been fertilizing over top of their tobacco fields with a high clearance slinger. It’s built from a hopper with a whirlybird on a metal frame with an hydraulic PTO.
This year the Hudsons were applying fertilizer as late as early August. Steve Hudson said the last time they had to apply fertilizer so late in the growing season was five or six years ago, and even then they only put it on part of the crop.
“We’ve never had to do the whole crop like we’ve had to do this year,” he said. “Usually it’s just on drowned out spots and places with real sandy leachable land.”
Usually a flue-cured grower wouldn’t apply nitrogen so late in the year, because the nutrient can make the leaf dark and lessen its value. Hudson figured, though, “when it’s been raining three inches a week,” nutrient leaching is going to outweigh the risk and disadvantages of discoloration.
Despite all of the rain, extension agent Brown thinks Halifax County’s tobacco crop this year is “going to come around.”
The rain has caused tobacco plants to grow quickly. “Farmers say it’s one of the quickest crops they’ve ever had,” Brown said. But the poundage may be down, as leaves are thinner than usual.
Hudson seconded Brown’s opinion. His plants are a good size — if a little yellow at the bottom — but the yield from ground leaf pulling has been, he said, “a little bit lighter than usual.”
Hudson started pulling ground leaves this year about the same time he usually does, July 25. He usually starts filling two barns per day on Sept. 10 (he has 17 curing barns, some box barns and some rack barns).
Overall, Hudson is satisfied with the quality of his tobacco crop this year, given the weather conditions.
Coleman did accelerated his harvest. In August, tobacco was burning off the stalk so he started pulling so as not to lose the crop. Because the early pulling filled up his rack barns, Hudson lent him some of his spare barns for curing.
The Hudsons planted 50 acres of tobacco with drip irrigation. They dry farm about a quarter of their crop, for October pulling, and can irrigate the rest with overhead guns.
But this year they haven’t needed to irrigate.

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